Two years ago, on the night of October 8, 2017, I was in my apartment in New York City. Unable to sleep at two in the morning, I glanced at my phone and saw a news flash. In Santa Rosa, California electrical transformers and propane tanks were exploding. I turned on the television. There it was: the worst fire in California’s history was destroying drought-ridden Northern California.
The fire started on Tubbs Lane near Calistoga, incinerating everything in its path. Fueled by fierce westerly winds, it would consume both sides of Mark West Springs Road and beyond.The Safari West Wildlife Preserve is at the center of Mark West Springs Road, tucked in a sheltered valley. Its 400 acres are home to 1,000 animals — or, as Peter Lang, the owner and founder of Safari West, would say, “1,000 souls.”
Sheriffs arrived at the property at 10:30 p.m. to evacuate the 90 guests staying in the African safari tents. Brian Jellison, Safari West’s manager, immediately drove a mile to the Lang’s ranch. Peter’s wife Nancy woke her husband. Peter said, “Give me ten minutes.” Nancy said, “You don’t have ten minutes.”
Nancy herded their four dogs into her car. Peter grabbed a hoodie and jumped into his truck. Brian followed as they drove through a wall of flames. The oak trees were on fire. Everything was on fire. The Sonoma night sky was lit up.
At Safari West, the sheriffs delivered an unequivocal order: everyone was to leave. Ninety Safari West guests immediately complied. Nancy drove down Mark West Springs Road, assuming Peter was in his truck behind her.
But it wasn’t in Peter’s nature to leave.He had put those animals there; he felt it was his responsibility to stay. And for the next ten hours, alone at Safari West, 76-year-old Peter Lang worked to save 1,000 animals.
He began by connecting garden hose after garden hose to reach fire spots. He drove a forklift to haul flammables away. He climbed an eight-foot fence to encourage a herd of Nyala antelope to jump over flames; when one leaped, all the others followed. The fire that had trapped the animals was now motivating him to climb back over that fence.
At one point, the hyena and cheetah enclosures were in flames — and because the hyena enclosure had tall grass around it to give the hyenas privacy, the fire had a fresh fuel source.Peter drenched one spot fire after another. Every few minutes his hoodie would be bone dry, and he would have to turn his hose on it.
The heat was unbearable. By 2 a.m. near hurricane-level winds were whipping through the trees. Peter had one ally: his animals. Having grazed the land, they had created a natural fire-break. Peter watched animals watching him fight the fire.
As dawn was breaking, the aggressive firestorm shifted its intensity, and Nancy and the staff started returning to Safari West. With the staff now fighting the flames….Peter drove to his home. Nothing was left. Four homes and two barns. Gone.
Peter and Nancy drove us up to see the devastation on their own home ranch just a mile away from Safari West. All the watusi and brahman cattle on the ranch survived the fire by huddling near the pond. At the end of this video you can see the scorched hills in the background. And yes I talk to animals …
And yet it was a night of triumph. Not one animal was harmed, not one bird perished. Peter had saved Safari West.
The fires burned 36,810 acres and destroyed more than 9,000 structures in Napa and Sonoma counties. Twenty-three people died. The monetary cost was at least $1.3 billion dollars. The most likely cause:a failed PG&E transformer connected to a private line. Sparks from the failed system fell to the dry grass, and then the winds began.
In the last two years Safari West and its dedicated staff have seen the birth of 147 mammals and 285 hatchings. And like so many in Northern California, Peter and Nancy are rebuilding their home.
A cheetah’s underbelly is completely white. Reduced canines allow for a larger nasal opening to increase the volume of air that the cheetah can bring in with each breath. Cheetah’s cannot roar but they purr just like house cats. I asked a cheetah caretaker to take a video of this purring cheetah.